Cowboy’s Killer Evades Justice as Determined Detectives Persevere
A lone cowboy headed no place in particular rides through the rugged canyons and hills of Wheeler County, miles from any road or town. A rifle shot shatters the mountain stillness and, hours later, his horse and dog show up back home. He doesn’t.
Two days later, Indian trackers find the body of James Phillip Brooks, 23.
That was in 1994. Law officers and the prosecutor in this tiny county are still scrambling for a motive and evidence to help them solve the county’s first murder since the 1930s.
“We were dead-stalled for seven years,” Dist. Atty. Tom Cutsforth said. “Now we have a whole new list of witnesses, witnesses we should have had seven years ago. We’re going back to zero, to the day it happened. We’re asking, ‘What’s the most likely scenario?’ ”
At the time, he said, the investigation concentrated on a logging crew in the area. “We were headed in the wrong direction. Instead, we’re concentrating on everyone who might have been in the area and talking to them.”
Cutsforth convened a grand jury this year and is in the final phase of calling some 90 witnesses. “I can’t guarantee an indictment,” he said. “But we’re going to chase it as far as we can chase it.”
Why anyone would want to kill Brooks, a well-liked rodeo competitor who had no serious problems with the law, remains a mystery.
“You might not understand this, but he was a cowboy,” said Cutsforth, himself a product of a small eastern Oregon town. “He got in some fights with friends and not-so-close friends. He drank a little bit, and he would stand his ground if he thought he was right or his pride was hurt. But most cowboys do.”
Sheriff Dave Rouse secured two search warrants but says neither turned up useful evidence. As for suspects, he said, “We had two people of interest, but they refused to speak to the grand jury. One came back and talked. That opened a few doors.”
Cutsforth says someone knows what happened, and he won’t quit until he weeds out the rumors and gets some answers.
In small counties, as in small towns, there is talk, and Wheeler County -- Oregon’s least-populous, with 1,500 people -- is no different. At the Shamrock Lounge, a popular watering hole in this county seat of 430, Pat Ignowski has held court behind the bar for six years and has heard just about everything.
“They talk about planes that used to fly over the area real low, with lights on that lit up the whole countryside,” Ignowski said. “They talk about how maybe the kid saw something he shouldn’t have.”
There are whispers of drugs, he said, but added that there is no landing strip within many miles of the shooting.
Rouse says he is inclined to dismiss a drug connection.
“They’d be hard-pressed to grow it up there,” he said. “It’s real high. You could probably only get one crop a year.”
Meanwhile, the trail grows ever colder. “At one point, they had 67 people up there -- in four-wheelers, on horseback and on foot,” Rouse said of the first investigation. “The site was contaminated.”
And in a county where the average age is well into the 50s, witnesses die. Memories dim.
“Cases like this do not age well,” Cutsforth said. “They’re not like fine wine.”
Given the remoteness of the area, Cutsforth said, Brooks’ encounter with his killer almost certainly was a random one. A lot can happen unseen in a county with less than one person per square mile. Possibly the young cowboy was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The ranch where he worked leases hunting rights to a guide service, and Brooks was killed in the last week of bow-hunting season. Anybody hunting with a rifle that day was poaching.
Cutsforth said loggers in the area heard a rifle shot. Some say they heard three. Brooks died of a single shot to the chest.
This is in a county where deer-hunting vies with Christianity as the dominant faith.
“It could be that he saw someone with a rifle,” Cutsforth said. “Part of his duties was to apprehend trespassers. He may have confronted somebody who decided it was easier to shoot him than to deal with it.”
There were trespassers in the area the next day, he said.
Cutsforth says it’s possible the killing was an accident but he will treat it as murder until he knows otherwise.
“Somebody does know,” Cutsforth said. “Whether that person wants to take it with him to his grave or come clean with us is up to them.”